Paradise Found

When the winds stir up and clouds descend, it is an island that offers sanctuary – among other deep-sea and earthy delights.

Words & Photographs by Lucy Howard-Taylor

702 kilometres northeast of Sydney, at the intersection of five ocean currents and a submerged continental rib, thrusts forth the remains of an ancient shield volcano. Eroded over seven million years to one fortieth of its original size, Lord Howe Island rises like a wind-shorn jewel from the waters of the Tasman Sea; eleven kilometres long by as little as three hundred metres wide, a vibrant blue-green, its twin peaks capped in cloud. From the sky, the island almost looks like the mossed jawbone of some long-extinct creature given up by the sea.

It may be less than a two hour flight from the crush of Sydney, but the moment you step from the Dash-8 onto the tarmac of Lord Howe’s only airstrip, there is a palpable sense of remoteness. There is no mobile reception on the island and no traffic lights (with next to no cars, bicycles silently reign supreme), but the lack of modern conveniences one might mistake for essential cannot wholly account for the subtle separation felt upon arriving in this UNESCO World Heritage listed property. It is disarmingly beautiful, in an unruly, enveloping way that robs you of words. But there is a strangeness to this wilderness too, with its opalescent lagoon fringed with coral, its deep green canopies of kentia palms, cowrie-studded beaches and panoply of birds.

Travelling in the middle of winter to a subtropical island and the world’s southernmost coral reef may seem perverse, but Lord Howe wore its wild weather hat well. On the tarmac I was left breathless by a brisk wind that tasted of salt and wet leaves. In bed that first night, with large fronds bashing each other outside my window, the roar of the trade winds was almost animal. During the day rain rolled in with no warning and cleared just as suddenly, leaving everything glistening. A wind cheater was essential, and should you go out at night, a torch: there are no streetlights here and the inky completeness of the darkness, broken by a milky wash of stars, took this city dweller by surprise. First things first, hire a bike, even if like me you cannot ride one. With only 360 permanent residents, a maximum of 400 tourists at any one time and 13 kilometres of undulating scenic road, there is ample opportunity for a novice to practice unobserved. Pack a picnic and ride to the preternaturally still and secluded Old Settlement Beach, where three men, three women and two boys came to live in 1833, trading with passing vessels. Or pop over to Ned’s Beach where you can snorkel among fantastically coloured coral gardens (there is an honesty box for hiring gear), or wade closer to shore and hand-feed swarms of tropical fish with names like Silver Drummer and Spangled Emperor. At dusk, throngs of muttonbirds return to their burrows in the low-lying palm forests nearby. As sunset arrives, their distinctive, searching cries can approach an almost human wailing.

These pristine waters host some of the best diving in the world, with an unearthly sunken landscape of volcanic drop-offs, trenches and caves lined with black coral trees, branching gorgonians and over 90 varieties of luxuriant subtropical coral. For those for whom the prospect of coming face to face with the blue teeth of a Harlequin Tuskfish in an underwater canyon sounds vaguely terrifying, you can charter a glass-bottomed boat instead and enjoy the spectacle dry and unmolested from the crystalline surface of the lagoon.

At the southernmost end of Lagoon Road is the start of the Little Island Track, which follows the shoreline to the black basalt cliffs of Mount Lidgbird. Lord Howe is a walker’s delight and this marked and level track meanders its way past picturesque Lovers Bay and through thickly crowded valleys of soughing kentia palms (keep your eyes peeled and you might see a native woodhen grunting happily in the shadows), to the base of the mountain and its stony shores of calcarenite and dark sea-sculpted rocks. Here, especially between March and October, you will see wheeling clouds of one of the world’s rarest seabirds, Providence petrels, diving over the cliffs as they chatter and return to breed. For the more energetically inclined walker, a climb to the scrubby top of Malabar Hill leads to one of the best views of the island and a dramatic scraggy drop to the sea. Alternatively, sign up for the famous day hike to the summit of Mount Gower, where you will find yourself among the twisted trees and inveterate mist of what the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage actually designates as Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest, which sounds more enchanted than ecological.

Enchantment is a recurring theme here. As the days pass, I discover that there is something about this island that is both calming and unexpectedly foreign, a wandering otherness that finds its way in on the throats of seabirds and endows plants with a luminous variety of green. The natural landscape is not only astonishingly lush – isolation, topographic peculiarity and igneous soils have spawned a paradise of ferns, palms, orchids and microhabitats – but feels unusually ancient, almost untouchable. Nowhere is this impression more powerful than in the broody Valley of the Shadows, where 20 metre high trees mottle the light. To stand alone amid this silent grove of banyans, their aerial roots muscling to the ground like the suspended legs of giants, is to realise the difference that is Lord Howe Island. It is to approach the primeval and be at home amongst the extraordinary.

From Lodestars Anthology Issue 3, Australia

The Playground of the Gods

Marina Marcolin, Lodestars Anthology Issue 7, Japan

Words by Cameron Zeyd Lange & Illustrations by Marina Marcolin

Mount Asahidake, the highest point of this wild island, rose up before me in a great mass of black ash and eternal snow. The volcano hasn’t erupted for 200 years but the smell of sulphur still stings the nose. I stood on the edge of Sugatami Pond, one of many lucid pools that mark this marshland, and watched as the fog thickened around the slopes. The water at my feet was like glass, without crease or wrinkle despite the rain, almost mythical, and I was struck by an urge to kneel and drink from it. I refrained, of course – it would have sooner made me sick than strong – but perhaps I should have, for in the end I would need the courage. A typhoon was coming in from the Pacific and I had five days to walk the crescent spine of the national park before it made landfall over Honshū and climbed the length of Japan towards Hokkaido. At last I tore myself away from the spectral water and set off eastward, my hood pulled low over my eyes.

I passed no one on the way up, moving through slanted plains of crumbling volcanic glass which turned to ash as I climbed higher. Before long everything I could see seemed to reflect back to me in negative, divided between the black earth and a white sky. Indeed the only colour in that monochrome world was the moss growing under the rocks, glowing like green jewels, almost fluorescent as if to compensate. Then, further up still, the mountain broke out into a flush of red and pink, the primordial evidence of vast lava fields and the molten wasteland it had once been.

When I squinted it was as if the earth itself was burning. The summit, when I finally reached it, was exposed to the wind and rain and I did not stop to rest. Instead I scrambled in wide strides down the other side of the treeless mountain, digging my heels into the loose ground. Only the occasional lick of yellow paint marked the onward trail, which soon disappeared beneath a vast snow plain that stretched out into the mist without apparent edge or end. Somebody had attached a rope to lead the way but it too vanished only a few steps ahead. The scene felt like a warning, a border I shouldn’t cross. But I held the rope with both hands and walked out, testing the strength of the ice with every step. Halfway across, with the whole world washed clean of form or feature, unable to see where I had started but with the end not yet in sight, I felt blind and afraid. The only evidence that I was on earth at all was the mud I left trailing across the ice. When I finally reached the other side, I looked back and knew I had crossed a frontier from which I could not return. From then on I would only leave these mountains by walking out of them on the other side.

Marina Marcolin, Lodestars Anthology Issue 7, Japan
Shortly before sunset the mountain hut I was looking for emerged from the fog and I lunged impatiently towards its sodden door. Making a space to sleep in the corner of the bare room, I boiled a pot of water for a quick meal, wrung out the sweat and rain from my dripping clothes, and draped them over the rafters. Then I scribbled

Where the hell am I?

into the margins of my damp journal and fell asleep as soon as it was too dark to see.

In the morning, as if in reply to my fevered note, the sun came out, revealing at last where I had spent the night. The shelter was built on the northern crest of a narrow plateau, easy terrain and brilliantly green. Revived by the light, I walked for a few precious hours flanked on one side by cliffs and clouds that masked the depths of the fall and on the other by the surviving snow. I settled into a metronomic stride up and over Mount Chūbetsu, my blood pumping in a paired rhythm. My clothes were finally drying and I was growing confident; it was even sunny enough to burn my ears. But by the afternoon the clouds I had looked down on rose to meet me, and this time, although I did not yet know it, the fog would not lift again.

Marina Marcolin, Lodestars Anthology Issue 7, Japan

I slept that night by the shore of a large crater lake. Its water, reflecting the sky and the snow on the slopes, rippled white as milk. During a break in the rain I ate my dinner barefooted on the beach and buried my toes in the sand, hoping to shock them back to life after the afternoon’s numbing tramp through the mud. It half worked, and I went to bed feeling determined and resolute, exhilarated by the wild weather and the presence of mind it demanded of me.

The next morning the fog was thicker than ever, laced once more with black rain. Beneath the shadow of Mount Tomuraushiyama, I heard the sound of a bell – used by walkers in these mountains to warn the bears of one’s approach – and quickened my step towards it. Eventually two silhouettes appeared from the mist. Surprised to find me alone, the two men treated me like a lost lamb and offered me, in true Japanese fashion, almost all the food and water in their pack and even a kit to repair my torn trousers. I knew to refuse – one should never take another hiker’s provisions – but their presence alone comforted me and I prolonged the encounter as much as the language barrier allowed. They were homebound men in a way that I was not, and they knew it too; as I walked away I could feel them watching me, wondering if it was wise to let me leave at all.

Marina Marcolin, Lodestars Anthology Issue 7, Japan

I spent the rest of the day following my feet through the valleys, my sense of distance and time distorted by my sightlessness. With nothing of the outside world to stir the mind, my thoughts increasingly turned inwards, and I repeated the three Bashō poems I knew like a prayer. The land, shorn of its detail, seemed to echo the very essence of his haikus: austere and exact, giving me no more and no less than I needed. In other ways it was the physical manifestation of a Zen kōan, designed to provoke doubt in the whole enterprise. In that it succeeded; it was getting harder and harder to tease out meaning from that shrinking world. “Walking”, Rebecca Solnit wrote,

“is how the body measures itself against the earth.”

But what am I to do when the earth itself is hidden? And what if my body, denied the anchor of the horizon line, begins to vanish too?

Marina Marcolin, Lodestars Anthology Issue 7, Japan

By the afternoon I had run out of water, the streams that my map promised having never materialised. I paced on through the thicket and gathering storm, shouting now and then to alert the bears, continuing long into the first hour of darkness. When I could walk no further I found a small patch of flat earth softened by the rain and set up my tent. I ate a couple of oat bars to placate my hunger and tried to fall asleep quickly to forget my thirst.

With the dawn came a pounding headache. I sipped all the dew I could from the morning leaves and set off gingerly into the dull light. After an hour I reached a swollen stream and drank several litres squatting on my heels in the orange mud. To the southwest loomed Mount Oputateshike and I had no choice but to climb it; the path offered no shortcuts and to forge one of my own would have been suicide.

Marina Marcolin, Lodestars Anthology Issue 7, Japan

As I left the valley’s protection the wind grew so strong that I had to turn my back to it simply to breathe and soon it took all of my waning strength to walk at all. Every gust threw me sideways, whipping flints of ice into my face. The steep hairpin trail, littered with flaking pumice rocks, disintegrated beneath my feet. As I climbed higher the wind grew angrier still and it suddenly caught the rain cover of my pack like a sail and flung me backwards, sweeping my legs from under me. I heard the sound of something snapping: my walking stick, hanging in half, had broken my fall. I watched my rain cover fly away down the mountain, like a kite I would never see again. I don’t know how much time passed before I reached the peak. But there, instead of coiling downhill as I had hoped, the trail followed the ridge of the mountain. Parts of it were no more than a yard across, sinking into nothingness on either side. One wrong step would be my end. I had no choice but to fall to the ground, breathing heavily with my cheek in the mud, and crawl like a soldier from cover to cover. My naked pack, acting now as a sponge for the rain, felt like a boot pressed against my spine and I had to use all my experience to fight my rising panic. Don’t stop, I thought.

Don’t stop.

The full version of this article appears in Lodestars Anthology Issue 7: Japan.